Few questions in the annals of strength history are more difficult to answer than, “who is the strongest woman ever?” In some ways, such a prompt raises more questions of its own. Should you account for their body weight, or the era in which they competed or trained?
After all, a female athlete in the modern day has far more resources at her disposal for getting monstrously strong than an athlete in decades or centuries past. Further, womens’ competitive athletics have seen their fair share of social or political upheavals, some of which persist to this day. https://www.youtube.com/embed/hVwxupX8a2A?feature=oembed
That said, the evolution of strength sports throughout history has churned out plenty of noteworthy women who have stacked plates and raised the bar to new heights, both figuratively and literally. This list highlights a handful of the athletes who helped push boundaries, advance their respective sports, and make the impossible seem borderline ordinary:
- Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton
- Ivy Russell
- Jan Todd
- Bev Francis
- Karyn Marshall
- Aneta Florczyk
- Leah Reichman
- Tatiana Kashirina
- Donna Moore
- Tia-Clair Toomey
- Chen Wei-Ling
Due in part to lost records and inconsistent reporting, accurate information on strength athletes from years past can be difficult to find or verify. But as far back as the late 1800s, women had begun making headlines in the media for incredible feats of strength. Josephine Schauer Blatt, known by her stage name Minerva, was one of the strongest women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Minerva was awarded a championship weightlifting belt by Richard K. Fox, the editor of the National Police Gazette, in the late 1890s for her victory over fellow strongman Victorina. For the next several months Minerva challenged other competitors, often without reply.
Over the course of her career, Minerva was known to catch cannon balls, lift heavy barbells and perform harness lifts. Her most impressive harness lift — as stated by news headlines at the time — allegedly amounted to over 3,000 pounds.
Coming to fame in the 1930s, Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton was known for two things; hand balancing and exceptional weightlifting prowess. Stockton regularly balanced her 180-pound husband Les with one hand on the idyllic sands of Venice Beach.
It was in weightlifting, though, that Stockton truly impressed. The “Queen of Muscle Beach” appeared on magazine covers, ran her own women’s weightlifting column in Strength and Health during the 1940s, and helped organize some of the first women’s weightlifting competitions in America.
Although her best records — 100 pounds in the press, 105 in the snatch, and 135 pounds in the clean & jerk — are far from competitive in the modern era of women’s weightlifting, Stockton was a pivotal figure in the infancy of American strength sports. Stockton is widely considered by academics to be a trailblazer for strong women everywhere.
Born in 1902, British weight lifter Ivy Russell was the unofficial strongest woman in her country during the 1930s. She boasted a 193-pound clean & jerk and a 410.5-pound deadlift. Moreover, she successfully petitioned the British Amateur Weightlifting Association (BAWLA) to host womens’ contests in the 1930s.
Following her illustrious career in weightlifting, Russell tried her hand at wrestling before a car accident in 1939 curtailed her sporting career. Russell could be considered one of the earliest iterations of the modern powerlifter. Had she been born several decades later, when powerlifting became a recognizable sport, she would have undoubtedly been a force to reckon with.
Powerlifter and world-renowned strength historian Jan Todd was one of the key figures in women’s powerlifting in the 1970s. She was the first woman to total 1,200 pounds in competition. She was also the first woman to, in competition, pull 400 pounds in the deadlift and squat 500 pounds. (Todd went on to deadlift over 400 pounds 13 times between 1977 and 1984, according to Open Powerlifting.)
Such feats of strength explain why Sport Illustrated labeled Todd the strongest woman in the world in 1977. Todd deserves mention by dint of her powerlifting accomplishments alone, but she stands even taller for her unbelievable efforts with the Dinnie stones — a pair of 733-pound boulders that have been used in strongman competitions for decades. Todd, with the assistance of lifting straps, became the first woman to lift them successfully in 1979.
Related: Dr. Terry Todd and Jan Todd Honored at the 2019 Arnold Classic
Currently, Todd is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Jann and her late husband Terry Todd wrote over 600 articles and published seven books on strength training and strength history. The duo also founded the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, which holds exhibits about physical culture and maintains an enormous archive of physical fitness-related content.
Powerbuilding has risen to prominence in strength circles in the modern era, thanks in no small part to pioneers like Bev Francis. The first woman in history to bench press over 300 pounds, Francis married strength and aesthetics like no other between the 1970s and 1990s.
Per Open Powerlifting, Francis participated in — and won — 12 sanctioned meets between 1977 and 1985. All of her competitive appearances across both the 75-kilogram and 82.5-kilogram classes, with the exception of her debut, were in single-ply equipped events. In total, Francis won six International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) World Championships from 1980-1985.
Francis began her bodybuilding foray by appearing as a guest poser at the Olympia in 1985 before making her professional debut one year later, where she placed tenth. By 1987, she had won the World Pro Championships and advanced her Olympia position to third, a rank she maintained for two subsequent years before nailing her best all-time placement — runner-up behind Lenda Murray — in 1990.
Despite never winning a Sandow, Francis was consistently the most muscular woman on stage when she competed in both powerlifting and bodybuilding. As one of the strongest and most physically imposing women of her generation, Francis broke down barriers for female athletes in strength and moved the needle in bodybuilding.
Despite many decades of significant achievements in strength by women, weightlifting did not embrace female athletes at the Olympic Games until the event in Syndey, Australia in 2000. American weightlifter Karyn Marshall made her mark on history far before the turn of the millennia, though, when she won the inaugural women’s division at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships in 1987.
Over the course of her competitive career, Marshall set 60 American records and 8 world records in weightlifting. Competing in the 76-kilogram and +82.5-kilogram classes, Marshall was also the first woman in history to officially clean & jerk over 300 pounds.
The World’s Strongest Woman contest first began in 1997 and while there have been some very notable stars, Polish-born strongwoman Aneta Florczyk is the only woman to win the contest four times. As a powerlifter, Florczyk deadlifted 485 pounds for six repetitions and 550 pounds for a single.
She trained for a full year as a strongwoman before winning her first title in 2003 and proceeded to claim that accolade again in 2005, 2006 and 2008. Florczyk also has the distinction of setting multiple Guinness Book of World Records results in various strength tests such as rolling up frying pans, lifting grown men with her bare hands, and numerous other old-school feats of strength.
Naming the most proficient female squatter in history is a near-impossible task. Although Taiwanese athlete Chen Wei-Ling and her ludicrously heavy 462-pound squat (which amounts to roughly four and a half times her body’s weight) merits a mention, the all-time heaviest women’s squat belongs to powerlifter Leah Reichman.
In Sept. 2021, the super-heavyweight athlete squatted 900 pounds with apparent ease. Hitting the lift in a squat suit, Reichman surpassed the previous record, which had stood for over a decade, by over 40 pounds. What’s more, Reichman still has plenty of gas in her tank and time left in her career. https://www.youtube.com/embed/GOmJlRfYVCo?feature=oembed
At the Strength of Heroes Championship in 2021, Reichman squatted 925 pounds, bench pressed 440 pounds, and deadlifted 635 pounds, for an unbelievable 2,000-pound total.
In the nearly four-decade period since the IWF began hosting women at their World Championships, no female weightlifter has climbed higher in the sport, in terms of absolute weight lifted, than Russia’s super-heavyweight superstar Tatiana Kashirina.
At the 2014 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Kashirina conquered 155 kilograms (341 pounds) in the snatch and a whopping 193 kilograms (425.4 pounds) in the clean & jerk as a +75-kilogram lifter.
No female weightlifter in any class past or present, has managed to match or exceed Kashirina’s world-record lifts in 2014. Beyond carving her name into the history books in Kazakhstan, Kashirina is a five-time World Champion, has won the European Weightlifting Championships eight times in total, and clinched a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
No list of powerful women could be complete without the inclusion of three-time World’s Strongest Woman winner Donna Moore. Moore is one of those rare athletes who is proficient in every dimension of her sport.https://www.youtube.com/embed/qTw06sh3LDE?feature=oembed
She’s powerful in her pressing, can pull with the best of them, and has the guts to grind through anything that comes her way in competition. In 2020, Moore advanced her own world record Atlas stone lift when she hoisted 377 pounds successfully, cementing her as a force of nature in strongman.
Some athletes have enough prowess and skill to excel at more than one strength discipline throughout their careers. Australian CrossFitter Tia-Clair Toomey has not only made one of the most impressive runs in the history of her sport, she’s also an accomplished Olympic weightlifter as well.
In 2015, Toomey placed second at the CrossFit Games after only two years in the sport. She would earn the title of Rookie of the Year and then go on to clinch silver again in 2016. However, that was the final time Toomey would be seen anywhere other than the top of the podium in Madison, Wisconsin where the Games are usually held.
From 2017 to 2021, Toomey dominated the field at the CrossFit Games against some of the strongest and fittest athletes in the world. Five consecutive wins tie her with Mat Fraser for the highest number of overall Games victories in history. Toomey also has the most event wins at the Games with 30.
Her resume doesn’t start and end with The Sport of Fitness, however — she’s also an international medalist in weightlifting. Toomey is the 58-kilogram gold medalist from the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, and prior to that, competed for Australia at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
She also narrowly missed selection for the 2022 Winter Olympics as a bobsledder, proving that no mountain is unclimbable for the 28-year-old multi-hyphenate.
For Taiwanese strength athlete Chen Wei-Ling, powerlifting and weightlifting are more than close cousins. The 40-year-old competitor has earned herself many of the highest honors available in both sports over the course of her career.
Wei-Ling won Gold at The World Games’ powerlifting competition in 2009, silver in 2013, and bronze in 2017 in the Lightweight division. On the Olympic side of things, Wei-Ling is the 2008 Olympic Champion from the Games in Beijing as a 48-kilogram lifter.
At The World Games in 2009, Wei-Ling squatted 207.5 kilograms (457.4 pounds and a World Record), benched 92.5 kilos (205.92 pounds), and pulled 195 kilograms (429.9 pounds a World Record) while weighing just under 47 kilograms (103.6 pounds). She would go on to match or exceed these numbers throughout the later years of her career.
In Beijing, she snatched 84 kilograms (185.1 pounds) and jerked 112 kilos (246.9 pounds) in the 48-kilogram weight class. Dominance across both sports and all five of the most challenging lifts in strength sport speaks to Wei-Ling’s gifted disposition on the platform.
Any list, ranked or not, is subject to preference and bias. In any discipline — but particularly athletics — it’s almost impossible to adequately address and praise every athlete who has made their mark on history. In fact, lists like this may pose more questions than they answer. Is it even possible to determine who is, unquestionably, the strongest woman to ever live?
Instead of lifting one athlete above others, you may be better off recognizing that the women on this list, among countless others, carved their names into history in their own unique ways. From the physical culture performers of years past like Minerva to emerging greats like Donna Moore and every athlete in between, women have soared high in strength — and have plenty more ground left to cover.